Though usually the Holy See only notes the death of cardinals, these persecuted prelates often get public praise from Rome.
The Holy See announced this week the death of two bishops from Mainland China, Bishop Luca Li Jingfeng, and Bishop Matthias Yü Chengxin, who died on November 17 and December 7, 2017, respectively. The two prelates, like many Catholic bishops, suffered persecution from the Beijing regime.
In general, the Vatican does not make announcements regarding the death of bishops, but only for cardinals. However, such communication is practically systematic in the case of Chinese bishops, albeit sometimes several months after the fact. In China, most bishops appointed by the Vatican are not recognized by the government, which insists on designating bishops on its own, without the consent of Rome. There is thus a state-approved church, and the underground Catholic church, loyal to Rome.
Bishop Li Jingfeng, born in 1921, was bishop of Fengxiang, a diocese of 23,000 faithful served by around 40 priests. According to the Holy See, he “always firmly defended” the principles of the Catholic Church, “opposing the undue intromission of politics in ecclesiastical matters.” However, he always maintained openness to dialogue and mediation, says the Vatican.
This firmness of Bishop Li Jingfeng earned him persecution throughout his life: in 1959, while he was rector of the diocesan seminary, he was arrested and sentenced to forced labor. He was not released until 20 years later, in 1979. A few months later, he was ordained bishop coadjutor of Fengxiang, where he assumed pastoral leadership in 1983. His appointment was only recognized by Beijing in 2004 .
Despite this belated recognition, Bishop Li Jinfeng always refused to join the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics, the so-called “official” church. Consequently, the persecutions continued: in 2006, his country’s authorities prevented him from participating in the Synod on the Eucharist, to which Pope Benedict XVI had invited him.
Nine bishops died in 2017
The other deceased bishop, Yü Chengxin, also suffered persecution. Born in 1928, he entered the major seminary in 1956, but the seminary was closed two years later, preventing his ordination. During the Cultural Revolution, he was arrested and sent to forced labor. It was not until 1981 that he could finally be ordained. Although he was consecrated bishop coadjutor of Hanzhong in 1989, he chose never to exercise his episcopal ministry, in order “to promote reconciliation and communion” in his diocese, says the Vatican.
According to a count by AsiaNews, nine Chinese bishops died in the course of 2017. In four of the affected dioceses, the government either did not allow or has not recognized the ordination of successors appointed by the Vatican.
The issue of the appointment of bishops remains one of the main stumbling blocks to a possible agreement between the Vatican and mainland China. For the moment, the two parties do not maintain any official relationship.